Ethics and Paladins- Part 2 (Divine Command Theory)

asian paladin

In a previous post, I suggested that paladins in D&D might be more interesting to play if we allowed them to follow more realistic ethical theories, such as utilitarianism or virtue ethics. Today, I want to take that point further by looking at the approach that most people take when playing a paladin and taking it in another direction.

The view is called Divine Command Theory, and it’s an approach to morality that basically says that we should do whatever God or gods demand. Following the Ten Commandments could be seen as Divine Command Theory; if the commandment says “Do Not Steal” then you must not steal. The reasons people might follow such a commandment vary, of course. Some might be trying to avoid punishment, while others want the reward of being favored. Still others may do it simply because God commands it, and they serve God. Most likely, Divine Command Theory is basically what D&D creators like Gygax or Arneson had in mind with the paladin originally. Paladins must follow the divine will of the gods, and there are real consequences if they don’t, such as loss of favor and the powers that come with it!

But what if we pushed this view a bit, in light of the fact that there are many gods recognized in D&D? I still have the original Deities and Demigods book, which includes stats on gods from Moorcock’s Elric novels, and even Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. If paladins are knights in the service of gods, why couldn’t they follow any of the gods, rather than being limited to a lawful good ethos? Imagine if my paladin worshipped Azathoth, which the book explains as a being the size of a star, and a god who drives followers insane? Now, I am an insane paladin, capable of doing whatever random things my capricious nature leads me to do at a given moment. In this case, I would become a Fallen Paladin if my character started to make act rationally, since I am no longer following the path of chaos and madness.

That’s an extreme example, and might actually be difficult to play for more than one, rather humorous, session. But my point is that there are many gods available, each with different goals and thus different Commandments that their paladins would have to follow. Later editions of D&D tried to capture this a bit by having evil paladins, or by giving clerics different domains based on the gods they followed. What I am suggesting would simply apply the same principle to paladins, and the player and DM would have to decide what Divine Commandments the paladin must follow.

Looking at some of the other gods in Deities and Demigods (D&D…get it?), we have a wide range of possibilities. There are gods from the Chinese and Indian Mythos, for example. Apparently, the world of ‘Oerth’ (names in the 70s weren’t so clever!) had the same religions our history has. In any case, a paladin following one of these deities could presumably be a Taoist or Buddhist, focusing more on harmony and balance than ‘good’ in the European sense. This might make her more like a druid, focusing on neutrality and the forces of yin and yang.

There are also plenty of non-human gods in the book, despite the fact that early editions did not allow non-humans to play paladins. They would still have gods, though, and surely some of them would become holy warriors. Baldur’s Gate 2 explored this idea with the character of Mazzy, who was technically a fighter, but had paladin-like abilities from her god, Arvoreen (the Halfling god of war…wait, there’s a Halfling god of war??). Following the commandments of non-human gods could lead to interesting ideas. Perhaps Dwarven gods have a very different sense of right and wrong than human gods would. Something about beards and mining and prohibitions against dwarf throwing.

The book also details Native American mythological figures, but interestingly none of the Central American gods are Lawful Good, and only one of the “American Indian” gods is. The heroes in these sections sometimes are, which I guess means that Hiawatha, who is listed as being a paladin, follows the Thunder Spirit, Heng, the only Lawful Good god on the continent! But if we loosen the restrictions on paladins, we could imagine jaguar paladins, who embrace the idea of being stealthy and cunning in the service of their gods.

Whatever the case, Divine Command Theory would actually allow a much broader variety than we typically assume, since most of us come from a Judeo-Christian background. Still, it wouldn’t allow as many possibilities as the next approach to ethics that I will examine- The Existentialist Paladin!

Fallout Dilemmas Part 2-Silver Shroud

Fallout 4_20151114171057In a previous post, I discussed my dilemma with Pickman, an NPC that led me to wonder what choice to make regarding his existence. Today, I want to look into another dilemma the game created for my character that is trying to be roughly moral. Spoilers ahead! Again, I shall avoid main plot spoilers, but this one is a series of quests. While I won’t give everything away, I can’t really discuss it without spoilers.

Shortly after entering the ghoul-run town of Good Neighbor, one of its denizens asked me to reclaim some props from an attempt to televise an old radio program called “The Silver Shroud”. The Shroud seems to be based on a very old radio character from the real world (i.e. our world, which is not necessarily more real than Fallout, but that’s another topic!) called The Shadow. I used to listen to audiotapes of The Shadow on trips with my grandparents, who apparently grew up listening to the show. I can still hear the echoes of its main tagline: “The Shadow Knows!”

Anyway, the Silver Shroud is a pulp hero more than a superhero. Think of characters like the Phantom or Dick Tracy; he’s a vigilante with a silver submachine gun and trench coat with a scarf (maybe it’s an ascot!) and a hat. He fights villains like the Mechanists, whom you may remember from Fallout Vegas. It’s really terrible stuff, but perfectly captures how these old serials tended to work.

Once you bring back the costume props, the ghoul that idolizes the Shroud asks you to don the costume and bring justice back to the Wasteland…you know, give people hope that there are heroes out there. So what should I do? Do I lie and pretend to be a superhero? Or do I say no?

Honestly, I had to see this quest play out, so I didn’t care what the moral choice was. But here’s how I justified it for my character after the fact!

First, there’s no way that anyone but the crazy guy who hired me would believe in the Shroud. The bad guys I took out were certainly unconvinced by my horrible imitation of the Shroud. Seriously, though, you must do this quest and you must speak as the Shroud. It’s hilarious. But I don’t feel like I’m lying to these people by pretending to be the Shroud. I feel like I’m cosplaying.

Second, these are bad people I’m taking out. I get to find out the bad things they’ve done first, which means they deserve to be murdered in the streets by a fake hero…right???

Third, maybe knowing that a vigilante is out there taking down the bad guys is enough to give some people hope. I mean they might not believe in the shroud, but surely they believe that less bad guys in the world is a good thing.

Fourth, aww, who am I kidding? I did it all for the lulz.

Ethics and Paladins- Part 1

typicalpaladinAh, paladins, the quintessential do-gooders—people with such moral fiber that they are incapable of bending principles, no matter the situation. This is the character that exasperates the rest of the party by refusing to do what is obviously necessary in order to achieve some end. In many ways, the paladin is a caricature of a moral person, one who views the world in such stark black and white terms that other players spend half of their time thinking of ways to trick the paladin into ignoring what they plan to do next.

In ethics terms, paladins fit into a moral theory known as deontology (from the Greek ‘deontos’ or duty). This theory presents the world in absolutist terms, where every wrong act is always wrong, regardless of context, and nothing immoral should ever be done, “though the heavens should fall”. That quote is often misattributed to the most famous deontologist, Immanuel Kant. The phrase is actually a Latin saying that applies to justice, but Kant approved of the idea behind it and argued that morality should be based on innate, logical principle rather than a desire to achieve certain results. The details of this principle are a bit complicated for a blog post, but the key is that once our duties are determined, we are morally obligated to follow them in all cases, without exception.

This principled viewpoint certainly fits how most players approach the paladin class. A paladin has an unbreakable code, which means, for example, that lying is wrong, regardless of the reasons or the target of the deceit. Other beings are either good or evil, and the evil ones must be destroyed, even if they have information that might be useful to the party. Want to rough up a recalcitrant NPC in order to determine your next move? Forget it! The paladin won’t let you.

The result is a system in which deontological baggage basically dictates your character’s actions. I’ve seen many players become disillusioned with their first attempt at a paladin as they quickly realized that they have almost no free will with the character. Key decisions became exercises in algorithmically inputting information to get a predestined result. Many lesser DMs actually use the paladin’s principles as a way of railroading players, thus adding to the frustration. In fact, most editions of D&D punish paladins for any act that doesn’t perfectly fit what the system thinks paladins are supposed to do. A fallen paladin, bereft of his or her connection to the gods, becomes pretty useless, since they lack the full benefits of a straight fighter and lose all of the spell-like abilities they once possessed.

So, how can this be fixed? One way would be to drop the deontological requirements of the class, while keeping the idea that paladins have to be lawful good. Instead of deontology, the paladin might follow utilitarianism, which focuses on the results of our actions rather than the actions themselves. An act itself is neither absolutely right nor absolutely wrong. It depends on whether it creates more pleasure than pain when compared to other acts we might do.

I think playing a paladin as a utilitarian could be a lot of fun! Imagine if your character takes the Law of Utility to be the law that she follows (satisfying the ‘lawful’ part), and sees the greater good in long terms. Such a paladin might be willing to torture a defenseless goblin in order to foil a greater evil, especially since the normal flaws in torture (i.e. the victim’s willingness to say anything to end the pain) would be mitigated by the spell-like ability to discern truth from fiction. The possibilities here could be very interesting!

More importantly, this would eliminate some of the frustration that other players feel when there is a paladin in the group. For once, a group member could turn to the paladin and say “Look, we know that stealing is wrong, but it’s the only way to get the potion that will save the kingdom!” and the paladin would agree. Even the restriction on being in the same party as evil characters could be lifted, since the paladin might recognize that as long as the party is doing good, overall, it’s OK if that’s not the main goal of every one of its members.

This isn’t the only approach to ethics that could change how paladins are played. What if our paladin follows virtue ethics, a view that focuses more on character traits than principles? After all, paladins are supposed to be full of virtues, like bravery, honesty, integrity, and compassion.

Aristotle, the most famous virtue ethicist, proposes that we should aim at the Golden Mean when developing character traits. The basic idea is that every character trait has a deficiency, where too little is shown, an excess, where too much is displayed, and a middle ground, where we exhibit just the right amount. To help students remember this, I often refer to it as the Goldilocks and the Three Bears approach to ethics, where there is always too much, too little, and just right!

So how does this fit with paladins? Well, the bravery they display would have to be tempered rather than extreme. They have to be able to fight the forces of evil, but a single paladin charging into a legion of demons is not brave; he’s a fool. The same is true of compassion; too much makes you soft. Too much integrity is actually stubbornness, where one refuses to change position even when there is overwhelming evidence that the original position is wrong. A good DM should allow a player to play as an Aristotelian rather than a virtue robot programmed to always recite the truth, charge into evil, and accept every quest.

Paladins, as presented in most D&D campaigns, are too excessive to be virtuous. The advantage of virtue ethics is supposed to be its flexibility. An honest person does not have to tell the truth in every single instance; if that were true, none of us would qualify as honest. Ironically, as presented in the rules, paladins are too extreme to qualify as virtuous. They do not bend enough. (Am I the only one picturing a Stretch Armstrong paladin right now?).

These are just a few ideas on how you could spice up the role of paladins while still insisting that they follow a code of ethics. But we could take this a lot further! In my next post, I’ll explore two other ethics positions that could really change how paladins are played. The first seems at first glance to fit the idea of paladins perfectly. It’s called Divine Command Theory and is just what it sounds like; however, in a world where there are many gods, DCT could lead to all sorts of possibilities! I’ll also examine what I think would be an amazing alternate approach to take: The Existentialist Paladin.

Fallout 4 Dilemmas Part 1- Pickman

PickmanpaintingTime for some applied ethics in actual games. This is part 1 of an ongoing series about Fallout 4. There will be spoilers in these posts. I will try to avoid spoilers that focus on the main plot of the game by focusing on choices made in side quests as well as one-off events that happen in the game. Because Fallout 4 has a huge, open world with lots to explore, you may never encounter some of these situations in your playthrough. However, they are in the game, so you have been warned.

I start with a choice made by my heroic character, Dannis. I’ve decided that Dannis does care about finding his son (this is the main plot, but you discover this in the tutorial), but he is unwilling to sacrifice the good of others to do so. As a result, he helps people when they need it, whether they are settlers trying to fend off Raiders or victims of ransom demands from Supermutants who have kidnapped their loved ones. Dannis is a good guy, and this should make his moral choices pretty easy, right? Not exactly!

(This is where the real spoilers begin!) In one recent episode, Dannis happened upon an art gallery. As soon as he went in the door (hiding, naturally!), he overheard a group of Raiders talking about a man named Pickman. The Raiders were plotting revenge on this guy for messing with their gang. Sounds like my kind of guy! The Raiders are ruthless terrorists in the wasteland, and Dannis tends to shoot them on sight (before he gets shot himself). This was no exception, so he decided to put an end to their revenge fantasies by lobbing a frag grenade into their midst. Three raiders died instantly, but there were more around the corner.

After eliminating the resistance, Dannis checked out the building a bit. In a large room on the main floor there were grotesque paintings on the wall. They looked like they were painted with blood, and they depicted hellish scenes of torture and Cthulhu-like images of eyes on tentacles. Really gruesome stuff! In the middle of the room was what can only be described as a monument to death and dismemberment. Limbs and torsos and heads were arranged in sickening postures, a sadistic sculpture dedicated to madness and destruction. Whoever made this engaged in perverse fantasies. These Raiders had gone too far!

There were also some corpses on gurneys nearby. They contained the usual Raider loot—a few bullets, some bottlecaps, and various junk—but they also had calling cards from this ‘Pickman’ character. Apparently, he was killing these Raiders and letting them know it was him. Well, good for Pickman! These guys were even more disgusting than other Raiders I had seen.

As I explored upstairs, I realized that there was a space in the wall, which led down into the basement. Down there was another piece of “art”, this time with a bucket of blood and some entrails next to it. Ok, this was messed up! However, it was starting to dawn on me that this isn’t typical Raider behavior. Yes, they impale some of their victims, but largely as a warning or to strike terror. Someone was taking perverse pleasure in this, and that isn’t really their style. A blasted out section of wall led into some caverns/sewer beneath the building, where Raiders were taunting Pickman that this time had come. It was time to pay for his sick deeds. Uh oh. This confirmed it. Pickman was the bad guy here. I mean he was the worse guy…or something.

I finally found the climactic battle. The leader of this group of Raiders was fighting with Pickman. I wasn’t sure whom to help at this point, so I lobbed another grenade. Maybe it would take them all out! No such luck. A few Raider minions were killed, but the two big baddies were still fighting with each other. I decided to shoot the closest one, which happened to be the Raider. From my elevated vantage, I was able to end the fight fairly easily. Unfortunately, Pickman was still alive. I decided to find out his motives and go from there. This was where I made a mistake of sorts, morally speaking. If, at that moment, I had treated Pickman as a threat, I could have eliminated him and felt no real guilt. He was a bad guy; the Raiders are bad guys. Save the Wasteland by ridding the world of both.

That’s Fallout justice!

Instead, I listened, as he explained that the Raiders deserve what he’s doing to them. His art produced good in the world, even if it did satisfy his twisted ends. I froze, literally in game terms. I paused the game and thought through my options. What should I do? On the one hand, this guy was a psychopath; on the other, he directed his tendencies toward Raiders, and the less of them the better. He was an apocalyptic Dexter, using his deviant desires to rid the world of other evil people. Did the ends justify the means here? I wasn’t sure, and I teach this stuff for a living! What’s my duty here? What would maximize utility? What would Aristotle do?

Damnit…I just wasn’t sure.

Ultimately, I decided I couldn’t just murder Pickman now that he had stood down. In game terms, he was green (non-hostile). I told him I would let him live. He gave me a key to a safe he had hidden behind one of his viscera paintings. In it was some treasure, including the switchblade he used on his victims, which gave a bonus by making enemies bleed after being stabbed. I sold it, because gross.

As I left his gallery (yeah, that’s what the building is called in the game: Pickman’s Gallery), I pondered my decision. I couldn’t get over the feeling that I should have killed him. Sure, he’s ridding the wasteland of Raiders, but he’s also a sociopathic dick who delights in dicing up his victims and turning them into art. Should I have left someone like that alive? Does anyone, even a Raider, deserve to have that happen to them? I don’t think so, but I also wasn’t sure I could just murder him in cold blood.

Here I am, traveling through the Wasteland, acting as judge, jury, and executioner over and over again, and this one time I have a perfect chance to end someone awful, I don’t take it. What do you think? Did I make the right choice here? Or did I blow it?

Playing Bad

fallout badguy

In my previous post on empathy and RPGs, I mentioned that I like to play different types of characters in games in order to try out different roles, and even different value systems. Right now I’m playing Fallout 4 (more on that game next post!), and I have three characters. One is basically a dumb brute named…Brutus (yeah, it’s not very original! If I get a chance to name pets in a game, they get names like Doggy, Piggy, or Eagly). He does whatever he is told and hits people with his fists and hammers and such. The two other characters are more interesting to me. One is a typical hero, out to save the world. The other is an egoist. She’s not evil, but she’s definitely selfish. She’s somewhere between Ayn Rand and Thomas Hobbes. She’ll help you, but she wants to know what she’ll get out of it. Then she’ll ask for more.

The problem is that while I find the egoist character interesting, I also have a hard time staying in character with her. I want to help out the people of the wasteland, and they are so desperate and poor that asking them for more money seems heartless. I do it because the character would do it, but I find her choice distasteful.

I was discussing this problem on Facebook, where my brother noted that he has the same problem. He can play a rogue character and steal things, but he still won’t sacrifice groups of people for his own ends. Another friend is playing through Knights of the Old Republic 1 (not to be confused with the newer MMORPG!). He’s trying to play the Dark Side, a choice that the game allows you to make. That game is brutal, though. To be “dark” leads you to do some pretty evil things. I’ve tried it, and I increasingly disliked my character. I didn’t even finish the Dark Side of that game. It was too troubling.

What does this mean? I think it reflects the empathy issues discussed in my previous post (here). A correlation between roleplaying and empathy could go in either direction. Perhaps roleplaying games teach us to be more empathetic toward others, or perhaps empathetic people are more drawn to the way roleplaying games allow us to visit another person’s life (fictional though it may be!). But some of us carry our empathy with us. We might enjoy seeing what a game has to offer in the way of moral choices, but that doesn’t make it easier to intentionally do something bad.

Of course, it’s just a game! We aren’t really sacrificing innocent people for our own ends. But I think there are some connections. In an article called “Monstrous Thoughts and the Moral Identity Thesis” Stephanie Patridge argues that the way that we think about even fictional characters in books, movies, and video games tells us something about our moral identities. Building on work by Berys Gaut, Patridge suggests that our intentionality toward fictional characters and situations can be evaluated morally, thus telling us something about our own ethics.

Presumably, this is only true if you actually identify with the fictional situation in some way, enough to actually have intentionality. So, if you are playing a bullet-hell SHMUP (shoot-em up!) in order to get a high score, you aren’t likely identifying with your onscreen avatar at all, much less with the hordes of ships/aliens/carebears/whatever that you are destroying. However, in a more immersive game like Fallout, many of us do immerse ourselves in the game in some way. The character we are playing has a story and motives, and so do the various NPCs we meet. As a result, how we act in the game and how we feel about our actions could tell us something about ourselves morally.

What do you think? Do our actions in games tell us anything about ourselves, morally? Does it depend on the game and the actions? Am I just overly sentimental when I worry about the poor settlers in the Fallout Wasteland, who carry all their possessions on a two-headed cow….I mean, Brahmin?

Empathy and Roleplaying Games

Welcome to the new blog! I want to discuss the ways that roleplaying games allow us to explore our own ethical boundaries, or even break them in a realm where the consequences are fictional. As gamers, we are given a wonderful opportunity to live in someone else’s mind and take a walk in other worlds. Doing so broadens our minds in so many ways, not just in terms of our moral beliefs. So let’s talk about empathy!

I recently discovered an article on Geek and Sundry (a great website and youtube channel if you enjoy roleplaying and/or board games) that put a spotlight on recent research suggesting that people who engage in fantasy or sci-fi roleplaying are more empathetic towards others. Here is the article:

I suggest you read it first. It’s short, and they deserve the traffic. In case you don’t have time, here’s a quick summary. The writer, Carol Pinchefsky, notes that a scientific study examined 127 people who play fantasy roleplaying games and found that according to empathy indexes, they rate higher than non-gamers. The correlation was significant (r=.43, for those who speak statistics!). Pinchefsky cleverly suggests “that gamers are really good at putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes/boots of speed”.

That’s my favorite part of playing an RPG! I like to make characters that have plans and values. This leads to cases of severe alt-itis (a “disease” characterized by creating many alternate characters that I play in order to approach the same game in different ways). So in Fallout 4, I have a character who really does want to make the world a better place while trying to find his loved one. He faces difficult ethical choices, especially in situations where two non-evil factions or characters have conflicting goals. He is torn on what to do, but will always go with what he thinks will produce the most good in the world.

Another character is more mercenary in her approach. She uses Charisma, Luck, and lockpicking skills to achieve materialistic goals. She’s not evil; but she is an egoist. She comes first, and she’ll squeeze you for every cap she can get, regardless of your situation.

In both cases, I try to empathize with the characters. I consider what motivates them. I relate more to the first character, who represents my ideal self. But I understand the second one, too. There are times in real life where I ask myself which of my options is most financially rewarding. I think we’ve all done that!

Still, both of these characters teach me something about myself, in positive and negative ways. When I smile at helping a stranger in the wasteland, or smirk when I persuade some poor sap to part with his last nuka cola, I’m learning things, both good and bad, about who I am. Hopefully, I take these lessons back into the world with me. If they do not make me a better person, perhaps they at least make me a more understanding person, capable of seeing why people do what they do and thus more capable of relating to them….for better or worse.

If RPGs do allow us to understand ethics better, it will only be because we are able to take the moral decisions of our characters seriously. In other words, we must be able to understand them as part of that characters phenomenological experience of the world, as part of who that character is as a living being. Not everyone who plays a video game will do this of course. If we are offered a choice in Fallout between saving a town, which rewards us with a laser rifle, and letting the town be overrun by raiders, which rewards us with a shotgun, there are many players who will choose based on the reward, and not on the ethics of the situation. In other words, they are simply playing a game, not taking on a role.

According to the study and its background literature, serious roleplayers engage in something called “absorption”. Put simply, that means we are likely to become absorbed in something to the point where our attention becomes so focused on what we are experiencing that we tend to be in the moment and can embrace characters in books or movies. I definitely feel that in games like Fallout. I have actual regrets about things that happen in the game, and real anxiety about what these post-apocalyptic survivors are going through.

Maybe that’s a necessary trait for learning anything about ethics through roleplaying. We have to be able to identify with what our characters are experiencing, and that means we have to take it seriously somehow. We can grow, morally, through these vicarious experiences, I think. But this is only possible if we can put ourselves in the boots of spe….errr….power armor of the people in the games we are playing!